In the Trenches: Combating the Issues that Face Higher Ed Web

Welcome to 2012! We might not have flying cars, but at least colleges and universities understand that the Web is an important tool for recruiting, fundraising and public relations.

Even though we realize the Web’s importance, we’re still figuring out how to manage our websites well. What kind of work should we be doing? How centralized should the effort be? How do we create an amazing website with the resources we have?

In late summer of 2011, my colleague Chris Heiland, of the University of Washington, and I decided to try and figure out what other institutions were doing, and what was working for them. People at more than 120 schools in the US and Canada responded to our request to fill out a survey. (View the raw data.) Of those, we selected about 20 to talk to in person to gain a deeper understanding.

Prior to the research, we thought of the Web as a collaboration of marketing and information technology. But really, it’s a lot more complicated than that. At most schools, it didn’t really matter who was in charge, it mattered how they worked together. We learned a lot about what was successful and what was failing. Some themes emerged:

  • Most web teams lack proper resources.  Shocking, I know. Teams are too small, lack funding, and are constantly asked to do more with less.
  • Our jobs are constantly evolving. See above. Did you get extra staff to implement a mobile website, design an app, or manage your social media channels? If so, you’re in the minority.
  • There’s a desire for campus leadership to be more involved. Since campus leadership plans and prioritizes resources for physical plant, staff, academics, shouldn’t the same be done for marketing and Web?
  • There’s a desire for campus leadership to be willing to take a risk. Many administrators don’t understand the Web, and are reluctant to take risks.
  • There’s often a struggle between independence and unification. Sure, your university’s [law, medical, engineering, English] school is the most important department on campus and wants their own brand, but is that best for the university as a whole?
  • There is a strong correlation between centralization and success. Kind of answers the question above, doesn’t it? Centralization leads to economies of scale and concentration of talent.

Most institutions are successful in most areas. Things are better than we let on. It’s probably because we’re awesome people who do awesome work.  So, how do we build on our awesomeness to help our institutions be successful? Based on our conversations with survey respondents and on our own experiences in higher education, here are some ways to help us be successful.

Communicate Effectively

Meet early and meet often. Set expectations early to help people balance the workload and plan ahead. Schedule regular meetings and speak face to face with other members on your team even if there isn’t much to talk about. These meetings should have two goals: to discuss the project and to build team spirit.

Build relationships. Some things can be done over email or IM, but team building isn’t one of them. Allow yourselves to go off task (a little bit) so that the meetings are more fun and collaborative. You can’t do your best work if you can’t wait for the meeting to end.

Describe problems, not solutions. You’re a creative person, and so is everyone else around the table. By skipping the problem-solving stage and going directly to the solution, you might miss out on the best solution to the problem. Describing the problem well opens up a broader range of solutions.

Speak the same language. Using the same terminology is important. Designers, developers, writers and the vice president approach problems differently.  Use metaphors, draw diagrams, or act out skits (posting to YouTube is optional)—whatever needs to be done to make sure that you’re all on the same page.

Document everything. Write a summary after each meeting so everyone can refer back to them. Not only will it give you a place to start your discussion next time, it will help clear up inevitable miscommunication resulting from different perspectives. If you’re using project management software, make sure that the information is up to date. Keep everyone in the loop by copying them in on all relevant emails.

Adapt your environment

Invest in better equipment and tools. Small investments can yield significant returns. Research shows that dual monitors can improve productivity by 20 to 30 percent. Project management software might help your team work together.  If your CMS is unstable and difficult to use, finding a better product might save your institution time and money in the long run.

Focus on what’s important. Several people we talked to mentioned this: don’t get sidetracked on minor projects that take up a lot of time. Check your analytics to identify the top 20 percent of your website, and focus your efforts there. Get rid of site content that’s unimportant or not maintained—it’s better to manage 100 pages well than 1000 poorly. And yes, it’s probably safe to delete that page from Math Day 2004.

Plan to change staffing for the future. This one is hard in a couple ways: not only will you probably have to convince campus leadership to make personnel changes, but it might involve firing or moving people. Think as far ahead as possible to make changes easier.

Generate Experts

Teach people how to write for the Web. According to our survey, only about 24 percent of us have a centralized system of content management. At most institutions, Web content is managed by an administrative assistant or program manager; they’re knowledgeable about their subject, but not how to write about it. Teaching them the basics of Web writing will improve your website.

Provide the right tools. We all like Photoshop, but if all someone needs to do is resize a photo, they’re just going to get confused—and then call you for help. Provide a simple tool that they can master.

Create Change

Understand your institution’s culture. Each college has its own way of doing things, and you can’t change them. Learn how decisions are made and how to work in that environment. Understanding the culture will help you make points without making enemies.

Build support. The campus community must believe that you’re knowledgeable and trustworthy. Achieving short-term goals and promoting them is a good way to share your success with the campus. Overcome obstacles such as sexism and ageism by meeting with people individually.

Get authority. Ultimately, to make some changes, campus leadership must grant you proper authority. Even the most well-respected and charismatic can’t do some things without the power granted by special recognition or a certain a job title.

Higher education institutions are making progress on the Web. Presidents and chancellors understand how important it is and are increasingly willing to make changes to support Web marketing and development efforts. But real change needs to come from us: the Web managers, designers, developers, writers and social media experts.

  • Couldn’t agree more with your third point. Systems work better when you can empower people by teaching them a little bit and distributing responsibility across an organization.

  • Anonymous

    Great read.